Sometimes the breaks even out.
Not always as neatly as they did in this instance, and rarely in a way that makes everybody happy. But a little bit of cheer penetrated the gloom hanging over the officiating department at NFL headquarters and here’s why:
One of the league’s best refs blew a call in Week 2 at Denver that cost the San Diego Chargers a win against their division rivals and, until last weekend, looked as if it would cost them a shot at the playoffs, too. Three months later, though, it’s almost as if that split-second mistake by crew chief Ed Hochuli never happened.
After three straight wins, the Chargers clawed their way back to 7-8 and will play host to the 8-7 Broncos, losers of their last two, with the AFC West title on the line — and Hochuli nowhere in sight. The 17-year veteran will be thousands of miles away in frigid Green Bay, officiating a regular-season finale between the Packers and winless Detroit Lions.
“We like to take guys who hail from Arizona and stick them in the cold every so often,” Mike Pereira, vice president of officiating, chuckled into the phone earlier this week from New York.
But that’s not what we meant about the breaks evening out.
It’s been a tough season for his zebras so far, but Pereira was only kidding about banishing Hochuli and his crew to the NFL equivalent of Siberia. That’s just how the schedule, prepared weeks in advance, panned out. Actually, Pereira is more than satisfied with the performance of that crew since the gaffe in Week 2. Enough, anyway, that you’ll probably see Hochuli & Co. working somewhere come playoff time.
And though he wouldn’t say so, Pereira is just as pleased that the Chargers’ surge effectively took one of his best employees off the hook. No one felt worse about the call than Hochuli, who went to Chargers coach Norv Turner immediately afterward and apologized after ruling an incompletion on what should have been a fumble.
When replays confirmed that, Hochuli was buried under an avalanche of hateful e-mails from fans and more than a few threats. Instead of laying off the blame, hiding behind a “no comment” or forwarding those e-mails to the league office, Hochuli responded to every one.
“I talked to Ed right after that game and said, ‘You’ve been one of the best around for 18 years. One play can’t tear that all down.’ And Ed’s crew rebounded exactly the way I expected,” Pereira said.
“In this job, you’re going to get kicked in the teeth at some point. If you can bounce back and put it behind you, then you belong in this league. Otherwise,” he added, “the instructions from this office will be, ’Move on, and we’ll find people who can.’ “
Much the same message was delivered to the Chargers, who slipped to 0-2 after losing at Denver and then to 3-5 after being beaten by New Orleans in London just ahead of their bye week. Before the long trip home, San Diego general manager A.J. Smith called an emergency meeting, dumped defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell and replaced him with linebackers coach Ron Rivera, who used to call the defensive signals in Chicago.
At first the shakeup had little impact. San Diego lost three of the next four. But gradually the defense morphed into the kind of opportunistic unit that Rivera’s Bears had been.